Why Everyone (Even Equestrians!) Needs Sleep


Sleep is important. This statement is drilled into people’s brains early in life, followed up by parents’ disapproval of staying up into the early hours of the morning watching your favorite TV show or surfing YouTube. There are only so many hours in the day, and between school, work, and extracurriculars, there is little time left for leisure. However, you may find it worthwhile to close the laptop early and get a couple hours of extra sleep, because the benefits of sufficient sleep and consequences of sleep deprivation are far more drastic than you might assume.

The brain is extremely active during sleep. It is in this time that new memory pathways are formed, shifting information learned during the day into long-term memory through a process called consolidation. This means that what you worked on in your riding lesson today, or what you learned watching other riders at a horse show, becomes stored in long-term memory, leading to more progress in your riding. Getting enough sleep is also proven to improve learning and problem solving skills; a well-rested and focused brain is much more suited for school, the workplace, and the arena.

Many metabolic regulations happen during sleep. Deep sleep triggers a hormone release that is crucial for growth and development, especially in adolescents. Sufficient sleep also helps the body maintain a healthy weight, keep consistent blood sugar, and boosts the immune system. Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, emphasizing the important processes the brain and body need to undertake while a person is resting. Sleep is when the brain and body are able to grow muscle, synthesize hormones, and repair tissues, and time for these occurrences should not be compromised. After riding without stirrups or having an intensive lesson, your body needs time to rebuild the strained muscles, so allow your body time to make itself stronger in repayment for your hard work.

Photos courtesy of Ashley Shaw

Not receiving the proper amount of sleep has various negative effects on athletic performance. Mentally, sleep deprivation increases production of the stress hormone cortisol. It also decreases production of carbs and glucose that would be stored for energy, inducing fatigue and lack of focus. When you are exhausted, your accuracy and decision-making abilities become extremely diminished. Wondering why you just couldn’t find a distance today? Maybe the amount of sleep you got the night before is the root of the problem.

Studies have shown that being awake for twenty-two hours straight can slow reaction time more than four alcoholic drinks can. In terms of the body, there is not enough time for cell regeneration and repair, resulting in a higher injury rate. Additional consequences include a very slow healing time and increased sensitivity to pain. Falling off, getting stepped on, and a variety of other accidents are just part of the horse world, but don’t let the repercussions of an incident keep you out of the saddle for longer than necessary. Getting enough sleep allows for peak performance both mentally and physically, and also can help prevent injury.

Its suggested that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep every night, while adolescents should sleep nine hours. The reality is that these numbers are frequently not achieved, but the inherent consequences of insufficient sleep are severe enough that you should make every effort to go to bed at an appropriate time. When it’s getting late at night, stow away the textbooks, shut off the electronics, and let the brain and body carry out the crucial processes that allow you to be at your best. A good night’s sleep can make all the difference.

Photos courtesy of Ashley Shaw

To learn more about the importance of sleep, I recommend listening to both part I and part II of the podcast episode “Eyes Wide Open” by NPR’s Hidden Brain.

Sources Cited

“Benefits of Sleep.” Healthy Sleep. Harvard Medical School, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2017.

Breus, Michael. “7 Ways Sleep Powers Athletic Performance.” The Sleep Doctor. Dr. Michael Breus, 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2017.

Fatigue Science. “5 Areas Sleep Has the Greatest Impact on Athletic Performance.” Fatigue Science Public Website. Fatigue Science, 11 Sept. 2017. Web. 30 Nov. 2017.

“Sleep, Athletic Performance, and Recovery.” National Sleep Foundation. National Sleep Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2017.

About the Author: Ashley Shaw is a senior at Lafayette High School in St. Louis, MO. She trains with Shannon Hicks and competes in the Junior Hunters and Junior Jumpers, and her goal is to qualify for the Devon Horse Show next year. Outside of riding, she enjoys photography, cooking, and hanging out with her retired horses.

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